Sunday, November 30, 2014

New movie review: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in the new biopic The Imitation Game.

Interested is interesting. It is an old line of advice parents give their children on how to make friends. The logic is sound for meeting people, but it is almost incorruptibly true when applied to storytelling. The problem with the new Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game is that it just does not seem very interested in its characters or really even in the story it is telling. As a result, it is only intermittently interesting.

On its surface, there is little to dislike in director Morten Tyldum’s handsomely mounted World War II picture. It is charming, well acted, and suitably dramatic. It has the veneer of prestige, but beneath that, there is precious little substance, which is a shame. Turing’s life is rife with cinematic possibilities, stuffed with intrigue, sorrow, and inspiration. All the makings of a great old Hollywood picture are there, something akin to The Life of Emile Zola, if we want to reach back a ways.

Sadly, few of these possibilities are explored. Late in the film, an authority figure, remarking on the death of a character, says, “He faced it with a stiff upper lip” – that classic indicator of British austerity. One cannot help but feel the filmmakers approached the material in the same way. Tragedy lurks in every corner of the story, but the film remains posh and aloof, somehow floating above it.

To the film’s credit, it never gets bogged down in self-seriousness. First-time feature screenwriter Graham Moore infuses the script with humor and humanity, and what easily could become a history lesson is never less than entertaining. It is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order, but if you have not been to the movies in a while, there is something you should know: Crowd-pleasers are a dime a dozen. If you wish to be pleased – and I am not saying there is anything wrong with that – there are any number of suitable movies from which to choose, including this one. However, if you wish to be challenged, look elsewhere.

Coincidentally, there is another crowd-pleasing British film in theaters right now about a brilliant scientist and his difficult life – The Theory of Everything. One could be forgiven for walking into this feature and realizing, “Darn it! I wanted the one with Stephen Hawking.” The other, more troubling trait both films share is a distinct lack of interest in exploring the world-changing feats these men accomplished.

Throughout The Imitation Game, we are told the machine Turing is working on will win the war if he is successful. He is building the first computer with the goal of cracking the German Enigma machine, an encryption device the Germans used to pass coded messages. If the machine is cracked, it will give the Allies a clear advantage, but despite efforts by the Americans and Russians, no one had been able to solve the puzzle. Enter Turing.

Rather than show the process of his work, though, the film settles for constantly reminding the audience Turing is a genius. We see him scribble furiously, but instead of an exploration of his scribbles, we are treated to numerous exchanges in which the probably autistic Turing does not understand basic human interactions. These are fun to watch but are no substitute for understanding the man and his particular brilliance.

Benedict Cumberbatch, of TV’s Sherlock and thus well versed in playing prickly geniuses, is great as Turing. As an actor, Cumberbatch is capable of explosive bursts of energy and tremendous feats of physicality, but he uses none of that here. In fact, the most physical we ever see him is during his morning jog. Turing is a man whose mind does the heavy lifting, and Cumberbatch portrays this with little more than a shift in his eyes or a twitch in his mouth. It is a brave, emotionally complex portrayal of a difficult and complicated historical figure.

Matthew Goode and Keira Knightly perform admirably in the parts of Turing’s friends and co-conspirators, but neither is given enough to do. While it is always fun to see Charles Dance on screen – you may recognize him as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones – he has the thankless role of playing “the authority figure who stands in the hero’s way.”

Dance is good, but the character is a microcosm of what is wrong with this movie. The filmmakers seem to believe it is not enough to watch a smart man do important work. He needs obstacles and conflict, as though the war alone will not suffice. Turing faced myriad challenges in his life and overcame a great many of them, but a superior who does not understand his work is probably the least among them.

Strangely structured, to say the least, Turing narrates his war record while we are treated to other flashbacks of his life, as well as a police investigation into Turing’s post-war affairs. The three timelines are juggled to somewhat muted effect. The end goal seems to be to induce guilt for the treatment of war hero Turing, who was persecuted for his homosexuality, a crime in mid-20th century England. The shift to a kind of gay rights narrative is handled deftly and carries appropriate weight, but it comes so late in the story that it does not land with the impact it otherwise might, much like the rest of the proceedings.

I have no doubt of the filmmakers’ good intentions, but the storytelling often feels perfunctory, coasting on the cultural cache of Turing’s accomplishments and World War II. These are impressive figures doing a critical job at one of the most crucial moments in world history. Their story is inherently interesting – if only the film had been a little more interested.

See it? Yes.

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